WORCESTER, Mass. — The first things students in Robin Hoel’s second-grade class at Chandler Magnet School had out on their desks to start their school day Friday morning were not papers and pencils, but milk and cereal.

All around the school, in fact, students were enjoying breakfast in their classrooms. The same scene plays out in the morning at 21 other schools in the city as well.

Yet statewide, only around 100 schools partake in so-called “breakfast after the bell,” according to Kali Coughlan, a child nutrition coordinator at the Worcester County Food Bank, which is part of a coalition of food banks called Rise and Shine that is trying to get the concept to catch on at more schools.

On Friday, Ms. Coughlan joined local school officials, lawmakers and other advocates on a tour of Chandler Magnet’s in-school breakfast program, which started this school year.

“We really see a big difference when students get access to breakfast” in their classrooms, she said, as opposed to in the cafeteria before the school day begins.

Part of the problem with the latter approach is that it’s not always possible to ensure students who need breakfast at school will always be able to get it in the small window after morning drop-off, she added. But there’s also a social/emotional factor.

“It can be stigmatizing” for students to have to seek out breakfast while their classmates go to their homerooms instead, Ms. Coughlan said. “There’s something to be said for breaking bread together (in class). Teachers say it’s like a family sitting down and having breakfast.”

A new federal school nutrition program called the Community Eligibility Provision also makes it easier for districts to afford such an arrangement. Schools where at least 40 percent of the enrollment are “identified students” – the definition the government uses for needy students – are eligible to use the program, which through the U.S. Department of Agriculture fully reimburses districts for the cost of providing free breakfast and lunch to all their students, not just the low-income ones.

In Central Massachusetts, districts including Worcester, Fitchburg, Webster, Athol-Royalston, Quaboag, Southbridge, and Ralph C. Mahar are already participating in the CEP, according to the state education department’s records. Ms. Coughlan said even non-CEP districts can offer in-school breakfast, although in those cases the schools would have to be responsible for the costs of feeding students who don’t qualify to receive free or reduced meal prices.

A bill introduced earlier this year by state Sen. Sal DiDomenico and state Rep. Aaron Vega, meanwhile, would make it a requirement for schools where 60 percent or more of the students are free or reduced lunch-eligible to offer breakfast after the morning bell.

Even in cases where the funding isn’t an issue, the decision to move breakfast into the classroom “comes down to logistics,” Ms. Coughlan said. In Worcester, for instance, where district officials intend to expand in-school breakfast to all schools in the system, it will take the addition of around 75 new cafeteria works to execute the plan, according to the city’s school nutrition director, Donna Lombardi. The district also had to renegotiate existing union workers’ contracts.

“The funding’s there” to pay for all of that investment thanks to the USDA reimbursement, she said. “The schools just have to adapt.”

Without the CEP, meanwhile, “it would be extremely difficult” to carry out the plan, according to Ms. Lombardi.

But there is a payoff for schools, at least based on the results so far at Chandler Magnet.

“What we were finding (before) was that kids were not eating (breakfast) in the cafeteria, because they wanted to go to the auditorium with their friends,” where students typically begin their morning, said the school’s principal, Ivonne Perez.

While staff at the school had some initial reservations – there were worries “it was going to be a mess” in the classrooms, Ms. Perez said — the in-class breakfast has largely been successful, according to school officials.

“We’ve been surprised by how great it’s worked,” Ms. Perez said.

Proponents say the program is especially important at schools like Chandler Magnet, where nearly two-thirds of the students are deemed by the state to be “economically disadvantaged.” In many cases, school breakfast is the only breakfast available to those children on a daily basis.

Among the impressed observers of Chandler Magnet’s program Friday morning were state representatives James O’Day, a Democrat from West Boylston, and Daniel Donahue, a Democrat from Worcester, who both said they’d support their colleagues’ bill mandating in-school breakfast at schools with large low-income populations.

“Walking around the classrooms today, you could see how important it is,” Mr. Donahue said. “It would be a huge benefit for a lot of school districts.”

“From what I’ve seen here … it makes sense,” Mr. O’Day said. “It seems they have it pretty well-organized.”


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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com